As user experience consultants we regularly get to collaborate with start-ups who are developing their business concept. In the course of these projects we’ll always ask when and how they’re planning to launch their business. Notice: a) the stress on business and b) the deliberate omission of the words product or service.

Over the years it’s become increasingly common to hear founders use the terms “lean start-up” or “minimum viable product“. But even when they do, they still seem to have plenty of reasons to delay the marketing of their businesses prior to a full product launch.

In large part I think this is down to the natural belief that you’ve got to make the right first impression. But you can do this in a number of different ways. You don’t have to wait till everything is perfect.

Another contributing factor is that a lot of people don’t like to market something in the absence of something to sell which I can totally empathise with. However, if you see what you’re doing as customer or market research and not marketing, then all of a sudden it seems less of a misleading thing to do.

When is the right time to start marketing your start-up and testing your assumptions?

Every business concept is different. What’s worked for us and some of the companies we’ve worked with, hasn’t always worked for others, and vice-versa. So, don’t treat any of this post as prescriptive advice, apart from the following line:

You should consider:

“launching something that allows you to test your assumptions as early as possible”.

Perhaps even before your product or service has been built.

Why launch early?

Pre Launch Plan

In most cases, there are always exceptions to this rule. Start-ups have assumptions about what their customers want, need and are willing to pay for. They don’t know for sure. After all, this is what makes a start-up a start-up. As in the words of Steve Blank:

“A startup is an organisation formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.”

Steve Blank

The key word in this phrase for me is “search”. As even though we think we know what people want, need or are willing to pay for; the truth is we often don’t. And even when we do, we can never be sure that this will be a profitable activity to undertake. Statistics on start-up success rates by industry sector confirm this.

For this unpalatable risk to be mitigated, founders need to accept that during the start-up phase of their business, what they perceive to be as truths and requirements are in actual fact patterns and assumptions. To validate these a number of steps must be taken. Which is why we always urge people to conduct generative research prior to making “big” product development or service design decisions. If this is out of scope then the next best approach is to “launch early”.

By that I don’t mean release your finalised product offering or actively start selling your service. Instead, I mean developing a pre-launch plan that will help you test your assumptions, marketing materials and potentially your pricing model.

What’s the difference between a launch and a pre-launch plan?

Hang on a minute you might say … that’s purely a semantic difference. But is it?

If you’re planning your launch strategy then there’s almost a sub-conscious driver to launch something that’s glossy and perfect. Hence, all those responses that we just need to do this or develop that and then we’ll be good to go.

Change what you’re planning, to a pre-launch strategy and suddenly things change. Now rather than being somewhat precious about things. You can ruthlessly focus on what really matters from a business perspective. After all is it really worth developing a certain feature or commissioning a substantial chunk of design work if our primary focus is to find 2,000 people who have signified their interest in what we’re building.

What’s more rather than thinking about all of the things you’ll need and not knowing where to start. This mindset will simplify your life. You’ll go from we need a website with x, y and z (of which x, y and z will probably refer to some obscure design element or advanced functionality that may not even be necessary). To we just need a branded landing page with a description of what we do, why people should care and an email capture form.

A pre-launch approach allows you to start small

For example, the cost of developing and testing a landing page over time is fairly insignificant. What’s more when compared to the cost of developing a full-blown website or your complete product or service solution it’s a pretty hard strategy to ignore. Why? Because it minimises the risk (as well as saving you the sunk time and cost) of developing something that people might not want or be willing to pay for.

In addition to this pre-launching will also help you:

Other pre-launch tactics to be considered:

Developing a landing page is just one of your options. Why not consider implementing one of these tactics too, or instead:

  1. Start a blog (and email newsletter) related to your product, service or target audience. Generate content that leads to conversations around the problem(s) you are trying to solve. Deliver insights and meaningful content that helps your target audience do their jobs.
  2. Contribute to industry blogs and publications. Identify destinations and touch points where your target audience already use. Monitor them and as and when appropriate join the conversation and try to add value.
  3. Use social media to build relationships and excitement with key individuals who are likely to influence your customers purchasing decisions.
  4. Use traditional print. This should start with your business cards but never underestimate the importance of good “leave behind” literature too.
  5. Networking. Never, ever underestimate this tactic. People like doing business with people they know and like. Don’t talk at people, build a relationship with them.
  6. Email signature. Use this to ensure you communicate key information and drive traffic back to your landing page(s) so that you can measure the success of your outbound communications.
  7. Press releases. The value of doing this will vary from market to market. However, you shouldn’t rule it out without investigating this tactic first.
  8. Press kits. Encourage bloggers and journalists to write about you and your business by developing a useful press kit that helps them tell a story and provides the assets they need.
  9. Give aways and competitions. There’s nothing like a bit of fun or a relevant and compelling incentive to stimulate attention and traction.
  10. Be exclusive. Consider legitimate behavioural marketing tactics, e.g. scarcity and loss aversion can be used to drive demand. For example, access to our new product will be limited to the first 1,000 beta sign-ups, is likely to generate greater demand on the behalf of end-users due to their fear of missing out.

Ready to roll up your sleeves

Conduct first-hand research with prospective customers

Before you start drafting the copy for your landing page you need to speak to as many prospective customers as possible. This is absolutely critical. If you haven’t done this, you don’t even need a landing page yet. Instead, block book the time to:

Don’t try to and make a sale on these calls or during these meetings. Instead, explore their needs and the problems they face. What’s more pay particular attention to the language they use as this should directly inform the language you use when you communicate with prospective customers.

When it comes to sharing what you’re up to. Be open and honest about where you are and what you’re short and long-term plans are. This is key to qualifying the relevance and level of purchasing intent each of your prospective customers has. If you don’t do this much of the information you capture may not be relevant and worse still, you’ll be stuffing your mailing list and sales pipeline with poor quality leads.

Your fundamental aim with these calls should be to deliver an excellent customer experience. Showcase your knowledge and intent to help them overcome the problems they’re faced with on a day-to-day basis. After all, this in of itself is powerful marketing.

Closing thoughts

Putting all this hard work into your pre-launch or actual launch is of course just the beginning. Unfortunately, a successful launch doesn’t guarantee a sustainable long-term business. Joost or Color Labs anyone? That said, there’s no doubt that an effective (launch) or pre-launch can drastically cut the time it takes to reach your short-term marketing and sales objectives.

François Roshdy

François is director of user experience at Border Crossing UX. He specialises in helping clients continuously improve the experiences they deliver.